Warning: this is a long article. 50 miles is a lot to cover both in a race and in a recap
I signed up for this race back in the fall both to join buddy Aaron on his first 50 and to have an “easy” 50 on my schedule in case I didn’t break 8 hours at the North Face 50 in December. Then the Sean O’Brien announced they are having a 100K distance this year and I signed up for that since I have never done a 100K. Problem is the 100K was 3 weeks after the 50 miler. After nearly breaking my body in the fall with all my races, I received a lot of advice I should drop the 50 miler. I attempted to get a refund but did not hear back from the Race Director. So this race was paid for, and I was conflicted what I should do. I decided I’d try to drop down to the marathon. Early last week, I started to get the bug. I hadn’t raced in 6 weeks. I was craving the challenge and the pain of an ultra. My nagging knee injury had been getting better, and I was coming off 3 weeks of 50+ miles per week. I felt my conditioning was peaking at the right time, and I couldn’t pass up a chance to finally avenge the 50 mile distance (I did not achieve my goals the last 3 I’ve done). So Thursday night I arranged carpooling with Aaron and Branden and committed to do the race.
In most races, you set up 1-4 goals so that you can maintain realistic expectations and adjust based on race conditions and how race is going. For something like a 50, Goal A would be podium (race the leaders), Goal B would be sub 8, Goal C would be sub 10, Goal D would be just finish. I adopted one goal, sub-8 or bust. I would go out hard, and if it was too much I would drop (and save my stuff for the 100K). I also wanted to experiment with going minimal, skipping the vest filled with layers, supplies and extra fuel. I ran with just a handheld and the clothes on my body. I packed a couple packets of tailwind into my shorts and replenished my tailwind with a simple ziplock drop bad at the mile 20/30 aid station.
Aaron and Branden met at my house at 4:15 and I drove the 3 of us down to San Diego. It was great to discuss race strategies and running stories with friends; it distracts from the usual nerves associated with raceday. We picked up our Bibs, geared up and head toward the start line. We connected with Joe, and the RD announced we were starting in 90 seconds. Joe and I headed to the front, Paul started the race and we were off.
Joe and I took off with a sub 7 pace. I know Joe also had a sub-8 or bust goal, with a secret agenda to win. Joe and I didn’t discuss our race strategies but we always work together until it is time not to work together. My plan was to get out front, and then see if I can keep the leaders “honest” by trying to hold them back and keep us in a pack instead of racing too early. Only Greg went with us, and he admitted he was on a recovery run. For being in recovery he sure was pushing us. We wanted to drop him so we ran 7s for the first 4 miles. It worked. We hit Raptor Ridge, and Joe kept running while I power hiked, knowing I will catch Joe again on the downhill. Then eventual race winner Marc appeared. He passed me on the uphill, got by him on the downhill, caught up to Joe, and let him know we have company.
The first section led us through agriculture areas, running next to an orange grove and then along the San Pasqual Valley trail. I thought this part of the run was very pretty as I have driven through these roads in the past and daydreamed about run through these fields. Though I prefer mountain settings in my runs/races, running through rolling meadows allows your mind to wander and for me makes time stand still. It may have been a different story in the summer, but in January everything was green, frost covered the plants, and the fog produced an eerie yet calming scene. Raptor Ridge was a fun hill, and I tried to enjoy it as much as I could, knowing the next 40 miles would be pretty flat and uneventful.
Joe and I came into Raptor Ridge AS together. Scotty Mills and Ang Shartel were working and Ang recognized us from Chimera and gave us great encouragement. Since I had to refill my bottle with powder and water at every aid station, Joe got out first and Marc came in as I was leaving. Joe took off at a blistering pace I knew I couldn’t maintain. I fell into my own rhythm and began the 40 mile grind until I come back to this aid station for the final hill and (hopefully) a strong finish. Marc passed me quickly and I was content with 3rd.
The next section ran along the pretty uneventful Mule Hill Trail taking us to the Interstate 15 undercrossing. This section was on pavement and confirmed I picked the right shoe to wear. I wore my Altra Olympus which is made for hybrid surfaces: trail, gravel and pavement. I am convinced these shoes were made for this course, and I saw that 4 of the top 10 guys had a pair on. I had no issues with my feet all day and stayed comfy in my “maximalist” shoes.
Around mile 12 I found a convenient port-a-potty where I decided I will make up the time it takes to stop if I “lightend my load” so to say. I have no idea how many people passed and would have to wait until the turn to count to see what place I was in. Since starting strong, I added a new goal I had to get top 10 today. I ran into the Sunset AS which was manned by the great people of SURF (San Diego Ultra Running Friends). Again while filling up my bottle, Branden and Ricky came in and got out in front of me. I figured I was in about 7th place at that point.
The next section was along Lake Hodges. It was pretty with nicely groomed trails; all very runnable. I was by myself the whole way except for passing the “slower” early start folks. There were a lot of people out enjoying the trails that gave me encouragement along the way which is always helpful.
At mile 15 I came into the “We love runners” aid station where the girls were all wearing pink and red and love was all around. I recognized Chris, Sheri and others I had met and run with on our Christmas Eve Day run to Stitton Peak. Small world but not really in ultrarunning. Sheri snapped this pic of me showing I will always exchange good aid station support with enthusiasm and entertainment.
The next section continued along the lake toward the Lake Hodges Dam and then connected to the Del Dios Gorge Trail. This was pretty uneventful running and I just pounded away the miles. I steadied into running 8s and grueled it out. The injury that had been plaguing my knee the last month had gone into the background and I felt I had my form back where I didn’t have to think about my form. A good place to be during a race.
I came into Bing Crosby AS where I gladly let ultra legend Fabrice Hardel refill my bottle. What an honor to have this guy out there supporting me on a race! I stole a fist pump from him hoping it would give me good racing mojo for the next section.
The Gorge Trail led to the Santa Fe Valley trail and then through the switchbacks to the Black Mountain Open Space Park. The switchbacks seemed so unnecessary and pointless to me. They were lined by log fences and would run about 12 feet before turning, taking you maybe on a 2-3% grade each time. A trail easily could have led straight down and back up the valley, but clearly this trail was made for hikers, erosion control, what have you. After the dizzying zig-zags it was only a few miles to the turnaround. At mile 24 I saw Joe on his way back. He was leading and looking strong. He birdcalled to me (Kaf-caw) and I did our signature airplane run. We high fived and I told him I was proud of him. I was very happy for him. Then about 20 seconds behind him I saw 2nd place and I thought, uh-oh. 3rd wasn’t too far back either. Joe was going to have his hands full in a few miles. I counted myself in 8th place heading into the turn. The leading female came in behind me which put an extra pep in my step.
Race Director John Martinez was manning this station, and I later heard he has some of the best goodies and treats of all the aid stations. I wouldn’t know I was gone. I got out before the 7th place guy and resumed my slough with a new goal—don’t let Neela pass me.
The course is an out and back so I returned back the way I came. I plucked off 2 positions at the next 2 aid stations. The run along Lake Hodges was brutal as the temperature was closing in on 80 and it was very exposed. It shows in my splits as I was running in the 9s at this point. I started to get worried I was fading and my 8 hour goal was in jeopardy. I kept doing the math, calculating the pace require to finish on track in an endless mental loop. I was starting to get down and went into that negative place you inevitably always go to during a race. As much as I smile and try to embrace it as a “this is what I signed up for, this is all part of the adventure, pain makes you stronger, etc” my pace was slowing. Then as I passed the dam I saw birds sunning themselves down in the lake (Vultures? Pelicans? Not sure they were big). Some had their wings stretched out and I don’t know why but this made me happy and snapped me out of my funk. You can’t see it in my split times but I felt faster and that is what counts.
While running along Lake Hodges I came up on Branden and passed him after checking in on his condition. I thought maybe he was behind on fuel, but he just said his legs were tired. Good luck Branden it is time to go.
I was closing in on Raptor Ridge and was looking forward to the hill as an excuse to walk. For the last 10 miles it felt like a road race with nothing in the terrain breaking up my gait—just the same pounding steps over and over again. I was also hoping the hill may give the leaders troubles and maybe there will be one more chance to pass somebody for a podium spot.
With 3 miles to go I saw a runner out in the distance. I thought it looked like Joe (which made me a little sad because I thought he was on his way to winning the race). I confirmed it was him based on his fluid gait that I have gotten to know training and running all of Chimera with him. I also saw him stop and walk for a bit which I have seen (though rarely) before and knew he was hurting. I tried to push it and ran some low 8s, also mindful I didn’t want to blow up either. I got a side stitch which I have never had before, but I fought through it. In the last mile Joe saw me (dammit) and picked up the pace. I had nothing left for him but felt good I made him work for it. I finished 4th 72 seconds behind him.
I joined the very energetic crowd of supporters and hung around the finish applauding and congratulating all the runners as they came in, the next one being Brandon. We were very excited Orange County represented so well as my friends and I took home 3rd, 4th, and 5th. I met lots of people which I know I will see again throughout the year at races. Aaron came in just under 10 hours and I was so proud of him for finishing his first 50 despite really bad IT band issues.
Paul Jesse and Off Road Pursuits put on a great race. Big thank you to all the volunteers as all the aid stations were great. Also all the folks who came out to support their runners were great in cheering for all runners who passed by. Great vibe at this event.
Branden, Aaron and I went to Bagby Brewery in Oceanside to eat dinner and exchange stories from the race. It was such a great day and confirmed for me three things. First, I love ultrarunning. Two, I have made great friends and being part of this community is where I belong. Three, I continue to improve at racing and I will have more success in this sport. I went into this race beat up, doubtful, and stressed from things in my personal life. I left the race feeling renewed, encouraged, and accomplished.